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A glimpse behind the doors of the Roman Baroque palace

A year of research reveals how nobles used theatrical interiors to show their collections

The history of collecting tends to focus on what was acquired when and by whom, or on matters of connoisseurship, but interpreting how someone actually lived and interacted with their things is harder to assess. Display of Art in the Roman Palace, 1550-1750, edited by Gail Feigenbaum, is the result of a year’s research project into display practice in Baroque Rome. It is luxuriously produced and the contributors show how palace interiors expressed identity and status in the capital of display. The book analyses a wide range of sources: account books, inventories and bank accounts, letters, travel books, treatises, design drawings and prints. These give valuable insights into the underlying principles of display at work in Roman palaces which were imitated in aristocratic residences across Europe in the 1700s.

Tapestries played a key role in dressing a space, as revealed in letters from the 1630s between Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici’s master of the household and the Florentine ambassador in Rome, detailing how to decorate the Palazzo Madama appropriately before the cardinal’s arrival. Several contributions are dedicated to tapestries and their role in transforming internal and external spaces. Rich textiles and gilt-leather hangings contributed to that element of theatricality which characterised the Roman Baroque. In her introduction, Feigenbaum notes that “Rome’s cardinals and duchesses were not actors in a play”, but many of the contributors to the book, not to mention its most striking images, suggest otherwise. Giovanni Paolo Schor’s 1663 design, for a state bed for the lying in of Maria Mancini, presented her as Venus in an open scallop shell, on a froth of ocean waves. Schor’s design for a stage set with a palace interior gives the best possible idealised vision of the proportions, relative placing and inter-relationships of all the different elements that made up an interior, including stuccowork, tilted mirrors, torchères, console tables and huge basins of flowers. This was a society in which great artists turned their hand to the design of every detail of an interior to create a unified artistic vision which was innately theatrical in its effects. Stefanie Walker’s essays indicate how this worked.

Patricia Waddy contributes an excellent introduction to the Roman Baroque apartment, which allowed art collections to be viewed by the public without the official business of the palace being disturbed. The silver sculptures commissioned by Louis XIII as a gift to the Holy House of Loreto in thanks for the birth of his heir were shown off in Palazzo Mazzarino in 1643 and “all of Rome came to see them”. Meanwhile, Francesca Cappelletti looks at the dynamics of the display of paintings in carefully sel ected pairs and ensembles in different rooms within an apartment, from the more public spaces such as sopraporte and corridors to the more private. Cardinal Giustiniani, for instance, reserved exquisitely detailed oil paintings on copper by Jan Brueghel for his bedchamber in 1621.

Eye for business

Sarah McPhee shows how Costanza Piccolomini (called Scultora) ran her husband’s sculpture business from home after his death in 1654, in the house they had decorated together. Equally revealing is Ingo Herklotz’s examination of the collections of relics from the catacombs assembled by Marchesa Felice Zacchia and Cristiana Duglioli Angelelli in the 1640s. It comes as no surprise to learn that delicate wax reliefs and drawings were protected under glass, as they were in Venice in the late 16th century, though the case over Finelli’s marble Bust of Maria Duglioli Barberini must have been exceptional.

Carole Paul argues that guidebooks and connoisseurship manuals actually encouraged viewers to make their own comparisons in Rome’s picture galleries and sharpened critical responses. In 1789, Hester Piozzi likened Domenichino’s “very laboured and very learned” Hunt of Diana, 1616-18, in the Galleria Borghese to Hogarth’s print, Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn, 1738. It is an apt comparison, a tribute both to her and to the way in which the displays in Roman art galleries taught generations of visiting Europeans how to look.

Display of Art in the Roman Palace, 1550-1750

Gail Feigenbaum, ed

Getty Publications, 384pp, £55, $75 (hb)

Dora Thornton is the curator of Renaissance Europe at the British Museum in London. She is organising a new gallery for the Waddesdon Bequest of 300 objets d’art (goldsmiths’ work, painted enamels, glass and ceramics, sculpture and small carvings in wood), which is supported by the Rothschild Foundation and is due to open at the museum on 11 June. Her book, A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest, will be published to accompany the opening.